Measure for Measure tackles tough issues, shakes up Shakespeare in a modern adaptation

The lobby was buzzing with conversation, punch and cookies. The parents, students, friends and faculty were shifting impatiently waiting for the doors to open.

Suddenly, a group of plainly clad women, and a few nuns, wordlessly enter the lobby and began to scrub floors and clean windows.

The audience was suddenly made part of the play – only one of the many twists performed to a mostly filled auditorium for the fall production Measure for Measure that met with very mixed reactions on opening night.

“It was a very interesting of Mark Hallen and Shakespeare,” said sophomore Melissa Zacharias.

First-year Krist Bulgrien added to Zacharias’ sentiment, “I liked how it was true to the text but it had modern twists.”

These twists included modern music and costume, a provocative dance sequence and the many layers the story was told in. The Shakespeare play, Measure for Measure, was being performed through the venue of a modern Catholic work house for women who were considered, both fairly and unfairly, to be sex criminals.

The residents included prostitutes, fornicators, adulterers, girls who developed too early, victims of rape and even girls who got too much attention from the opposite sex.

“I was confused,” said senior Katie Beckner. “The second half was much more clear.” Beckner’s sentiments were echoed by many theater goers.

Some of the confusion stemmed from multiple actresses playing the same roles, the disconnect between the women’s workhouse and the actual Shakespeare play and the females playing male roles. Also, some people said that Shakespeare alone is just very confusing.

However, most of the audience enjoyed their experience and found the play to be entertaining.

“I thought it went pretty well,” said junior Kelly Hughes, who played one of the main characters, Isabella. “We did well and it seemed like the audience understood it.”

Senior Taryn Heisler played Pompey. “Compared to how we performed in dress rehearsal we did very well,” she said.

Anna Bender, who played Mariana, said, “It’s come a long way in the last week but we have a long way to go.”

“I’m interested in seeing how the audience will respond to adding themes to Shakespeare,” said first year Elliott Simko, who played Escalus. “For a first run it went really well. There’s always room for improvement so it will just keep getting better.”

Jim Bergwall, who starred as the Bishop and the Duke, appeared courtesy of the Actors’ Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers in the United States.

“From my standpoint, in terms of connecting the dots it was very rewarding,” said Bergwall. “I was amazed at how quiet the audience was. A bored audience is restless. An audience this quiet I felt really connected with. It was cool. Very nice.”

Director Mark Hallen had a great deal to say about the play, especially about audience confusion and room for improvement.

He believes it is his job, as well as the ensemble’s, to build a bridge for the audience and to invite them to understand and cross that bridge, so they can be rewarded for it.

“I’m not sure we did that tonight,” Hallen said.

Hallen believes a theater goer needs to be called into the story, but they need to be rewarded for that risk and made to feel safe there.

The difficult material presented in this play requires the audience to walk out their confusion and wait a long time for that reward. Many people are not comfortable with not having immediate understanding or rewards.

“We don’t have many experiences where we are called to wait out our confusion – well, except for real life,” Hallen said.

Hallen believes it is his short comings – not spending enough time on preparing scenes and actors – as well as the other obligations of the ensemble, that are responsible for any confusion in the play.

They are faced with rehearsal, schoolwork and their own jobs and lives. Although some can understand the play, Hallen realizes the bridge needs to welcome all to cross it.

“If we haven’t done it for all, we have to find a way to,” he said.

Hallen looks forward to trying new ways to build that bridge and reward the audience by trying different things in the performances later in the week. He compared his production with a meal.

“I’ve prepared an incredible meal, but all the silverware has not arrived yet,” he said.

“Some will forget the silverware and dive right in, and some have certain tools, but some people don’t have the means to eat it.”

He added, “So I just feel like tonight there are some pieces of silverware missing.”

“Maybe I’m just a little sensitive about it because it’s my last play before my sabbatical,” he said. “I want it to be a Laramie, Two Gentlemen of Verona, A Glass Menagerie. With those I knew I hit the ball out of the park. With this one, the ball is still up in the air.”

Hallen believes art should serve the community, and he makes that his reason for choosing the difficult themes in his plays.

This play forces the audience to ask several questions: What is the difference between morality and moralness?

When you attempt to crush shadow material in your life, does it allow you to embody it in a deeper way?

Another question Hallen believes this play asks is if you give away part of your soul, and do not attend to it, does it fill with demons that can disguise themselves as righteousness?

“If Christians could just see that the world sees right through them in their moralism,” he said, “if they could trust that moral wrestling and thinking-like Jacob and the angel or Jesus in the garden- is a good thing, then they could achieve an incredible authenticity of soul that could make our Christian message stick and adhere to a broken world. If a play or art can do that, then it can get an audience to ask questions.”

Hallen is not sure that this play is doing all he intended.

“If it’s working, it’s challenging moralism. It could work, it might, I don’t think it is yet.”

“OK, folks, you’re gonna have to trust me on this one,” Hallen said.

Christians often feel that they are saved from complex thinking, said Hallen, but he encourages every Eastern student to stick it out and wrestle with the difficult themes and to question their beliefs.

He believes that the Eastern audience is usually willing to do just that and work hard at seeing themselves how they are.

“Jesus stayed,” Hallen said, “Jacob wrestled all night. He stayed. And I need to reward an audience for staying. I’m amazed they are willing to stay. It’s attractive. It makes me want to stay here and keep doing this.”

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